Ostriches in Social Work

A couple of stories have emerged over the past week about social workers who have been disciplined for ignoring referrals.

There is the case of Joy Coles who has been removed from the social care register thereby being unable to work in the capacity of a social worker now because, as a team manager, she failed to allocate 90 cases that had been referred to her team.

As Community Care reports

In one case, she took no action about allegations of physical abuse against children in a family, who were later placed on the child protection register. The committee heard that Coles misled her managers about the number of unallocated cases and she backdated closing dates of other cases.

The other case which bears some similarities is reported in The Sun today and involves Haringey Council again. It’s not so easy to read through the understandably emotive language but it seems that cases were referred and then ‘filed away’ out of sight and unallocated.

According to the Sun – 1000 (I presume that is a rounded figure) cases were ‘filed away’ – possibly for later allocation.

503 of the ‘filed’ cases were deemed to need no further action.

60 involved children at extreme risk

The rest were non-urgent referrals.

Two members of staff have been suspended and a third, an agency worker, has been dismissed – as well as having the pleasure of being door-stepped by a photographer from The Sun. All are named in the paper and linked to Baby P by the newspaper stating how they worked in the same team.

Of course we can have no idea what happened in these circumstances but can only imagine with those kinds of figures that the workload in that team must have been overwhelming. This took place in the midst of some kind of restructuring of the department (according to the Sun) and again, seems to be indicative of a horrendously mismanaged department.

I don’t know what level these people disciplined were at, but for their own managers not to be aware of the amounts of cases that were not being dealt with, seems to be something of a poor system of communication across the board.

For me, as well as obviously, highlighting again the shortfall of staff and a level of naive incompetence, it screams poor management structures to me.

Lack of staff, resources, strong management and constant reorganisations lead to actual front line repercussions on services that go out to people who desperately need them and indeed, rely on them.   A couple of days ago, I spoke to a friend of mine, a social worker in a different borough from me that I hadn’t seen for a while. We laughed about how many reorganisations we had been subject to over the past few years with the changes happening again and again for no apparent reason.

We laugh about constant reorganisations in social services, but these situations show that it is no joke. Switching staff around and operating on dangerously low staffing levels, can lead to tragic consequences for those who need these services.

While I could and would never defend what has been going on in these councils where people who made referrals and needed services were ignored – I think there is possibly a little more to the story and would be interested in knowing what kinds of workloads and pressures were being imposed from above. For one person in a team to be incompetent – well, that  happens everywhere but when it is a group of people, it indicates something a little more endemic.

One thing that is obvious though, is that things do need to come out of filing cabinets at times and that burying ones head in the sand is never going to be an effective way of caseload management.

image exfordy at Flickr

Perhaps the moves towards computerising all systems will pick up on things that have been languishing although, in the first case, it seems as if the manager put false figures into the computer database, and in the second, they were at least logged on the computer system before being ignored. Perhaps all the money spent on computer systems would find some way of triggering or alerting to those that had simply been logged.

The Daily Mail has helpfully reported on a solution. It seems that Essex County Council are advertising in Australia and New Zealand..

4 thoughts on “Ostriches in Social Work

  1. An ostrich!


    Sorry, I love that video for some reason. So simple, so effective.

    As for the computers making things more effective, I’ve yet to see a decent system for managing caseloads. The three that I’ve been exposed to have been crap.

    • I suppose I was thinking more of an alert system if nothing had been done but honestly, it’s as easy to ‘mask’ the systems if you really want to. And I love that video!

  2. That is very disturbing. I certainly agree with you that they were probably under extreme pressure and likely had many, many more referrals than would be possible to address. We’ve gone through this on a much smaller scale at my job recently. And even though we are a department of 4 people, it would take one person working full time to really do a case review on all cases each person has touched to make sure they are doing an adequate job at assessments. So, when you’re already overworked and a bit understaffed, where do you get the man power? It is a huge problem, both for big and small social work departments…whether it’s one bad apple or a whole bushel.

  3. It’s the old ‘seven year itch’ problem; every so often management shifts things round for no good reason other than to feel that they’ve ‘done something’. They then move on somewhere else and leave everyone to sort it out. By the time the system is working smoothly, it’s changed again. Education is particularly susceptible to this; it used to drive my mum mad every time a new initiative was brought in. She had been in teaching long enough to have seen all the ‘new’ ideas in action before and knew why they wouldn’t work. She used to say that teaching was the one profession where everyone knew better than the professionals and everyone thought they knew how to teach because they had all been to school. Apart from investigating of course, where Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher and Dr Mark Sloan constantly outwit the slow witted sheriffs with their amazing perception..

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